Part 1: Luang Prabang
After an amazing week in Vietnam, we decided to head to Laos next. I had read so many great reports on Luang Prabang in travel blogs and guide books and now really wanted to check the place out myself. So after we had gotten off the tiny plane and gone through the long queues for visa application together with a huge crowd of mostly American backpackers, we took a minibus to the city center. We had not yet booked a place to stay, so we decided to go to the same place as the Canadian we were sharing the ride with, to see if they had any rooms available. Unfortunately, all double rooms were taken, so we were told we would have to stay in the 16-bed mixed dorm. It was smelly in there, but apart from that the place looked fine, so we decided to book our first night here, so we wouldn’t have to look for anything else. In the evening, however, we came across a lady in the lobby who was vehemently complaining about bedbugs in her bunk bed. This was the point when we decided we did not want to stay here after all. So we managed to secure a room in a nearby guesthouse despite the late hour, and we continued to stay there for the rest of our time in Luang Prabang.
What we also realized, even on the first (half) day there, was the fact that Luang Prabang is extremely small. With less than 50,000 inhabitants, it is only a little larger than my tiny countryside hometown in Germany. We soon made the experience that an hour or two of walking were sufficient to see all the city’s main sights. The Buddhist temples (or wats) looked great and we also climbed the Phou Si hill in the city center, from where we had a nice view of the surroundings – the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers as well as the lush green hills all around the city. In the evening, we took a walk across the night markets: One of them specializes in food and of course we tried the all-you-can-eat buffet for 10,000 Kip (about 1 USD). The other night market is built all along the main street every night and specializes in clothes, bags, and all kinds of trinkets and souvenirs. But already on the second day, we realized we had already seen most of what there is to see. So we settled for a traditional Lao massage and spent the rest of the day in various cafés – the rainy weather didn’t really make us want to spend much time outside.
Finally, on the third day, it was time for our first adventure. We had booked an elephant ride through the jungle as well as a kayaking tour on the Nam Khan river with Tiger Trails. We were picked up by our guide in the morning and were driven to their camp by tuk-tuk. There, we boarded a small motorboat with two other tourists (who got off before us with their guide to go trekking). At the elephant camp, we played a round of boules with our guide, before the elephants arrived from their previous tour. Riding the elephant was fun, although we didn’t do much more than walk up and down a path in the forest. I experienced my personal “highlight” when it was my turn to sit on the elephant’s neck: We were already close to the camp again and when our elephant lady saw one of her friends, she started running and trumpeting and there was no way the mahout could hold her back. I have to admit, I was a little scared – even though everything turned out fine in the end. The kayaking that followed was nice, but far less demanding than what we had done in Vietnam. Our very chatty ex-monk guide preferred talking to paddling and so we were mainly drifting along the river. When we arrived at the pick-up spot, we had to wait for our tuk-tuk to take us back to the city. We spent the time with some local fishermen, learning to fish in traditional Lao style with a metal net and drinking local moonshine – just like in Vietnam.
Part 2: The Bus Ride of Our Lives
After an uneventful fourth day in Luang Prabang, we boarded the night bus to Vientiane. We had booked a so-called “VIP bus”, which was supposed to be more comfortable than the usual local busses. But I honestly do not want to know what the “normal” busses are like. Already when we entered the bus, we realized it would be a tough night: The lights were not working and the AC hadn’t been running, which meant it was pitch dark and even hotter inside the bus than outside. The worst thing was the extremely loud Lao music, which kept blaring from the speakers the entire time. But there is more: We wondered why the bus kept making little stops, but after one and a half hours or so we knew why. With a smoking engine, the bus broke down somewhere in the middle of the jungle, at around one o’clock in the night. We waited for two full hours, partly in the bus, partly sitting on the street, when we were ordered out because of the still smoking engine.
When we were finally in the next bus, which didn’t look much better than the first, but at least brought us all the way to Vientiane, it was already three in the morning. Tired as I was, I slept through most of the remaining trip. Many of the other passengers, however, got sick because of the bumpy and winding roads and the stench in the bus was hardly bearable when we finally arrived in Vientiane at around seven in the morning.
Part 3: Vientiane and Conclusion
Although we had a full day in Vientiane, we didn’t do much more than what we had done in Luang Prabang. Just like before, there were hardly any interesting sights around – we saw most of the notable pagodas, temples and other buildings on our first walk through the city. We spent the rest of the day in cafés and at the hotel and were happy to be on our way to Malaysia the next morning.
All in all, we were both fairly disappointed by our time in Laos. The amount of sightseeing to be done is pretty limited and the remaining activities are more or less reduced to the outdoors. During the rainy season, which was just starting at the time, there are just not enough alternatives. I guess Laos could be more fun in the high season, but as there was not so much to do and many of the smaller cafés and restaurants were closed, this might have been the wrong time to go there. (Some of the places that were available, had great food though!) Also, we could have done more hiking or kayaking, but we had already had our share of that in Vietnam and didn’t feel like doing it again here.